Why heavy-handed policing won’t work for lockdowns in most African countries


Many African countries have imposed lockdown measures stricter than countries in Europe and Asia in a bid to contain the spread of the new coronavirus. But, due to the significant variation in living conditions on the continent, implementing these measures is likely to be more difficult in some places than others.

This presents a significant challenge for the police. Should they rigidly enforce social distancing and other measures, or should they be more cognisant of the local context?

A significant proportion of Africans live in high population density slums and townships or urban areas. Effective social distancing is impossible because of overcrowding and poor sanitation.

“Lockdown”, as it is meant in wealthy Western nations, is therefore simply impossible in overcrowded conditions with no sanitation.

Even where a semblance of lockdown is physically possible, many people in Africa live in poverty, on a hand-to-mouth basis. For them a lockdown is not an option because it means loss of the means to live. Over 330 million Africans, out of a population of 1,3 billion, already live in hunger. Often the need to eat forces people out of their houses.

How should police respond to regulations that are effectively impossible to enforce strictly, and how should they respond to non-compliance?

Many countries across the continent, for example South Africa, Rwanda,  Kenya and Uganda, have deployed police, and in some cases the army, to enforce lockdowns, in many instances using heavy-handed tactics.

However, heavy-handed policing will not slow transmission of COVID-19. What’s needed is a harm-reduction approach. Nested in a concern for human rights and sensitive to the context individuals find themselves in, harm reduction encapsulates the range of pragmatic and practical steps to lessen the impact of inherently harmful behaviours or situations.

In policing, harm reduction approaches have been used successfully in response to substance use and have wider application to a range of other contexts, including pandemics.

In an African context, this could relieve security services of the expectation to achieve the impossible, and would allow citizens to inform the design of responses that are effective in the context.

The justification for imposing lockdowns is to protect the population from a disease that continues to spread in most countries across the world. That public-health goal must be kept in mind when deciding policing strategy, especially if leaders are to avoid suspicion of seizing an opportunity to display strength or extend the reach of the state.

Unfortunately, as noted, police have all too frequently taken a heavy-handed strict enforcement approach towards lockdown regulations. Some, such as in South Africa and Uganda, have employed brutal force to achieve compliance. This has led to a number of deaths.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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